During a recent agility class, I was working with a teenager who was frustrated with her dog’s trouble with the teeter and dog walk during competition. She bemoaned that her dog did both obstacles at the training facilities where she practices but regularly bailed on them in competition. This girl has her eyes on the end result of agility titles and is already competing in a class where she doesn’t quite have the basic handling skills to succeed. It has been a struggle, for the other trainers, to convince this girl that going slow or even backing up will ultimately benefit her.
After another mini-rant about her pup balking on these obstacles in a recent trial, another trainer suggested I work one on one with this girl (since I tend to be both patient and persistent). I asked her to cue the teeter and her dog screamed discomfort while on the obstacle and I pointed it out all the stress signals–slow to mount, tight jawed, reluctant to cross the tipping point, whale eye, looking away, and fast to get off the teeter once it hit the ground. After watching the pup on the teeter, I dished out a bit of tough love–if she wanted a dog who was never going to bail on these obstacles she had to go back to the most basic step and build the confidence.
I explained that her dog was doing the obstacles in familiar places because the pup wanted to do the ‘right thing’ but any added stress and he would bail. I explained this to her a few different times and in a few different ways–I think I eventually got through when I equated it to school and practicing new math concepts in class versus on a test, how the added stress made the math that much harder. That seemed to hit it home for her and I had her working on a wobble board on the floor for the duration of he class without her grumbling about it and urged her to stay on the flat until her pup confidently walked all over the wobble board. Hopefully, lesson learned and she will continue the “boring” but important work.
Working with this girl really reinforced the importance of mastering basic skills before moving on to more difficult skills. It’s important to take the time and make baby steps; for in taking those small steps one is laying an extremely strong foundation from which to grow. Just because you can achieve higher level behaviors, doesn’t mean your dog is ready to perform them–and if the dog is able to perform them, doesn’t mean the handler knows what to do with that behavior. When I was firstworking Shayne with frisbee, she very quickly picked up reverse chest vaults (a somewhat high level trick), unfortunately our progress really plateaued because I didn’t have the basic frisbee skills needed to use that trick effectively. We had to spend time going back to try to build a more solid middle before i could really use that trick. Going back to fix problems isn’t as easy as simply starting off right, it is very difficult to try and build a foundation when there is already a 4 story building on top or trying to squeeze a middle level into a building.
This idea of building a strong foundation seems so overlooked and devalued, that it’s ridiculous sometimes. Some folks are more concerned with reaching their end destination or achieving that big trick, that they don’t care if they get there by stacking chairs, boxes, and junk or if they build a sturdy pyramid of stone to reach their destination. It’s certainly a mistake I’ve made to an extent and one I’ve become very attuned to–I know how much of a pain it was to try and go back to fix problems. There will always come a point where a skimpy foundation will catch up to a handler and they will plateau and fail to improve or advance. A handler who can flip their dog from one obstacle to the next in agility, who can send a dog to an obstacle from 20ft away, who has trained wicked fast weaves can only go so far if their dog doesn’t recognize what side of the body the handler wants them to be on when they get “picked up”–this foundational skill is crucial to the game and without it the team will quickly plateau regardless how good they are at distance work or speed.
The number of dogs I encounter in upper-level training who have virtually no name recognition, who have learned to stop listening to their handlers, who have no clue how to work with their handlers, and who are completely disinterested in their human is rather shocking. To me, these are the foundation of the foundation skills. These are must-haves and not-optional if you want to do some type of activity together. When one wants to learn a canine sport or activity, name recognition, handler focus, and learning to work with the handler are foundational skills. If a dog has learned to ignore the handler and has learned to ignore his/her name, it’s pretty difficult to get the attention of the dog if it gets distracted or if you need them to notice you. If your dog is disinterested in YOU, he/she is likely to blow you off to do dog things. These issues may not rear their ugly heads until you are at a match/competition or new venue, but they will likely happen at some point.
So I guess, long story short… don’t undervalue the importance of taking your time and building a strong set of foundational behaviors or cues for your end goal–be that agility, frisbee, a well mannered pet, flyball, or rally-o.
Make sure your foundation is strong enough to support the heights you wish to reach.